The Void glowed, a pale blue luminescence, totally without form or differentiation, uniformly illuminating the Board on which Kaskey stood, his stocky Piece trembling from crest to plate with excitement. Diagonally across from him in an adjacent square stood another Pawn like himself in every detail except his face and his color, which was a shimmering white in contrast to Kaskeyís jet black.
"I am Fitch," said the white Piece, "and if you werenít such a coward, you wouldnít stand there trembling, but instead would turn your pitifully puny Weapon against me and I could slay you like a Vegan worm!"
Kaskey turned a cool eye toward the white Pawn. "I am Kaskey. If I decide to turn my Weapon against you, you will have the undeserved honor of dying a death worthy of a Chessman." He allowed himself to radiate a strong feeling of contempt, which Fitch answered by snickering and turning his back on Kaskey. "Go ahead and laugh, wormsmeat," Kaskey said. "I am destined for much bigger game than you, or I would have wasted you as soon as you stepped into my kill zone."
"Commanderís Name, thatís pompous talk for one little black nobody," said Fitch.
"Who are you to invoke the Commanderís name?" scoffed Kaskey. "I have returned your pallid and unholy Sister Romi to the Primeval Substance already this game, and you have done nothing but work your idiot mouth at all within reach of your Weapon. If you had a taste for combat and any sense of Chessman dignity, you would try for bigger game yourself. Or are you happy to be a Pawn for the rest of your life?"
"Iíll have your juices, and a Commission as well," muttered Fitch, casting an eye around the Board in challenge.
Its surface was perfectly flat, sectioned into sixty-four squares, each large enough for a Piece to exercise its full powers. The floor beneath him was warm and reassuring, and he drew power from it, as it was natural for a Piece to do. Beyond the edges of the Board lay the Void, pale blue and utterly featureless. No Piece had ever been into the Void, and as far as any Piece knew, there was no "place" within the Void to which to go. The Board was as it was, and any fool who took the time to look could see it obeyed immutable rules and was complete within itself except for the Commander, who had ordered it to be, and within whom was the Void, and who was within the Void. It was that simple.
Kaskey stood in his Queenís Knight Four, a square to which he had succeeded by slaying the Bishop Sister Romi, a cold-blooded bitch with a whining voice and a passion for wanton slaughter of lesser Pieces. In his left killing zone stood Fitch, and immediately behind him in Queenís Knight Three and to his left rear in Queen Three stood the gallant Knights Sir Michael and Sir David. Directly behind Fitch stood the Rook Abner, its massive lumbering Piece resting heavily in its square, sullenly enduring being pinned by Her Majesty Queen Helena from Kingís Bishop Three against the notorious King Charles the Pious, who was in his own Queenís Rook One. Abner was served by Link, a newly-cometobe Pawn who was grieved to see his huge friend in danger of losing his life, but who was nonetheless eager to slay Helena, should she choose to take Abner. White Queen Vanessa stood beside her King, a square to which she had moved to slay the Black Rook Takeo.
White King Charles was attempting to bring his team into Mindpool so that the game would be well coordinated, as he did not wish to lose the five-point advantage they enjoyed despite their weak position. Charles was not pleased with the progress of the game. There were several newly-cometobe Pawns on the Board who had as yet not grasped the subtle interplay of intentions called for mastery of Chessman life. The Board showed no artistry, no feeling for the most beautiful form for an attack or defense, and the Pieces all to often followed the dictates of their individual egos and moved impulsively.
Fitch was served by a newly-cometobe Pawn named Turner, who stood two squares in front of Kaskey. Turner felt an urge of uncertain origin to step forward and block the path of Kaskeyís advance against Abner, but was reluctant to do so, knowing that Fitch would then be left without service, and would quickly fall prey to one of the black Knights.
Kaskey siezed upon that moment of indecision as the white Pieces considered their play. If Turner moved forward, he observed, Sir Michael would likely take out Fitch, and would then stand strong in a position to attack Vanessa through Link, served by Sir David and Kaskey. But if that were to happen, the Rook Abner would be spared. If Vanessa should choose to move to cover Abner and open a square for King Charles to move into, the pin could be broken, and Abner would surely live to wreak havoc among the remaining members of the disadvantaged black team.
Though reluctant to die, he put his team and his duty before himself and once again taunted Fitch. "Fitch, you pallid puke, you talk big about combat, but I notice it is white to play, and you still sit there watching the Void go by. Whatís the matter, canít get your Weapon up?"
Sir Michael, the Black Knight who stood in a position of service to Kaskey, saw the Pawnís intention and radiated strongly his respect and condolence.
"Your high-stepping friend bids you farewell already, little black wormturd. My superiority is obvious even to him," crowed Fitch.
"So whatís keeping you, weenie-Weapon?" Kaskey persisted.
Sir Michael stood absolutely immobile, knowing if Fitch took out Kaskey, he himself would be most likely to take first Fitch, then Abner, in doing so succumbing to Link, or perhaps to White Queen Vanessa. It would be a profitable sacrifice.
Fitch tensed himself to loose his weapon, then paused and eyed Kaskey suspiciously. Then as though seeing them for the first time, he stared and then leered at the two Knights standing before him in a position to be forked by his advancing straight ahead. "Oh ho! Look what you were hoping I wouldnít notice," he crowed. "Ha! I shall have horsemeat either way, and a Commission -- a Queenís Commission!"
Turner looked in confusion at King Charles, who was trying hard to establish a Mindpool with the two Pawns, but Fitch had already committed himself to the motion. "Iíll come back for you later," he said as he passed out of Kaskeyís kill zone to fork the Knights.
When Fitch had completed his cycle, Kaskey paused a moment to make certain the Mindpool was free of resistive command content, then moved forward smartly to engage Abner. The white Rook swung its massive head around to face Kaskey, twisting awkwardly to contemplate the diagonal.
"So," rumbled the Rook, "local small fry makes good. You think you test Weapon against Rook, do you? Well, you may be pissant who delivers blow, but it is only your blackhearted Queen who makes it possible."
"You are powerless in my kill zone, Rook," said Kaskey. He calmly turned his back on the Piece and watched Fitch approach the two Knights. Aware that he had incurred the displeasure of his teammates by abandoning Abner, but cock-certain that he would gain the eighth rank and become a Queen to save the day, Fitch was still grandstanding.
"I pick and I choose," he said, considering first one Knight and then the other. Then he lashed out at Sir David with a bolt of screaming intense hatred and rage. The substance of his Piece spat forward like liquid light and struck the Knight squarely. The black Piece burst like a bubble to nothing, spilling as it did a collection of shards and parts, quickly assimilated by the floor of the Board.
Turning back to the Rook Abner, Kaskey sized up the mammoth Piece. "You are in no danger from Her Majesty, Rook. She would not waste herself for the likes of you. It is your timid King who forces these circumstances of your death to hide himself."
The Rook raised its head proudly. "My Liege need not command me to do that. I fear death as any honest mortal Piece, yet for King Charles the Pious I will suffer even at hands of such as you. It is neither King nor Queen who pins me here, but I myself."
"Good," said Kaskey, "and it is I myself who slays you."
He concentrated his attention on the Rook, then allowed himself an instant of introspection and triggered the carefully-conditioned reflex that was his Weapon. As though he had cracked a dam, a surge and then an incredible blast of feeling rushed from somewhere deep within him. With a scream of torment and rage he gathered his intention and directed the torrent at Abner. The Rook stood stock still as the bolt struck it, shattering it to shards which melted into the Board. Then, prepared to die, Kaskey turned to face Link.
King Charles rose to his full height in his square. "Goddammit," he yelled, "Iím resigning this mess. This is the lousiest game Iíve seen in cycles. No promotions. Dismiss and clear the Board." He nodded at King George the Stalwart, for whom Kaskey had fought, and grounded his crown. "George?"
Black King George saluted Charles. "We accept. Nothing here to write home about. One promotion: Steven Kaskey, to be Commissioned Kingís Knight. We greet you, Sir Steven."
Sir Steven, his Piece still that of the Pawn Kaskey, faced his King. "I salute Your Majesty King George the Stalwart."
"Know you the responsibility of your office?"
"And do you willingly bear it?"
"For whom do you stand?"
"I stand for the King."
"To whom shall you swear your life?"
"I swear to King and Commander."
"We consecrate the Piece and Weapon of this Chessman to King and Commander...." and together they repeated, "....to the Greater Glory of the Commander, His Majesty the King, and All Chessmanity. Amen."
"And get them stinking Worms," muttered King George under his breath. "All right. Dismiss and clear the Board." The Void went dark, and Sir Steven for an instant felt himself sinking rather quickly.
As though waking from sleep, Sir Steven became aware of the blue of the Void above him and of the neatly ordered ranks of Pieces standing with him in Commencement position. He recalled clearly the three previous games in which he had served as a Pawn, including of course the last game in which he had earned his promotion. Before that there were no memories, but the thought did not bother him -- that was before he had first cometobe.
He could not recall ever having been a Knight before, yet he was at ease in the Piece and understood fully his role in the game. For a fleeting moment he considered how it was that he had gained the new Piece (through promotion, naturally, but how? The Litany said that Pieces were metamorphosed by Will of the Commander during the Clearboard periods), and how it was that he had learned its function. The question nagged at him briefly, but it was obvious that he did in fact know who he was and what he was there to do. He did not need to learn to become a Knight -- he was a Knight. He turned to ask for the opinion of Brother Jurg, the Bishop beside him, and it did not occur to him to consider it strange that the Piece, like himself, was white. Before he could speak, however, he felt himself mesh with the Kingís Mindpool and the Litany of Commencement began.
With the other Pieces which made up his team, he recited the Invocation of Commander, the Chessmanís Creed, and the Consecration of Life and Weapon. "....that we may be tested, raised up and brought down in the service of King and Commander for reasons beyond our mortal understanding; in order that we may be purified through sacrifice of ourselves for our teammates, dying worthy of the dignity of Chessmanity, we do affirm our belief in the completeness of the Board, whole and holy, without error save that which is introduced by our own mortal failings, subject to immutable laws which are without exception, Board created of the Primeval Substance by Will of the Commander, which has created no other. We believe in the Commanded Right of the King, who is the vessel of the Commander on the Board, and to preserve and protect whom we shall willingly perish.
"We consecrate here our lives and Weapons to King and Commander, to the Greater Glory of the Commander, His Majesty the King, and All Chessmanity. Amen."
The black King stood and saluted the white King. "I am King George the Stalwart. In accordance with the Will of the Commander, I grant the offensive and will to commence."
"I am King James the Profound," replied the white King, "and in accordance with the Will of the Commander, I commence!" As he finished speaking, his Pawn Zambelli stepped forward smartly two squares and the game began...a new cycle in the lives of the Chessmen...to be fought to the death.
Steven directed his attention to observe the opening play. Having been since he first cametobe a Bishopís Pawn, a Queenís Pawn, and a Rookís Pawn, he was accustomed to being a spectator during much of the early play. Immediately the black Kingís Pawn Korov stepped forward to block Zambelliís further advance. With an abrupt start, Sir Steven remembered his position and the fact that he would now be doing a great deal more playing and less watching since he was a Knight. Feeling that he had been sitting there slack-jawed for cycles, and certain that every Piece was watching him, he sprang into motion to attack the Pawn Korov, resulting in a very flashily-played conventional move. There was a snicker from Black Queen Vanessa.
"You seem very eager to play by the book, Sir Steven," said King James, with a note of amusement in his voice.
"Is it not the strongest move, My Liege?" asked Steven.
The King nodded. "Itís a sound move."
Standing in her place beside the white Queen, Bishop Sister Brenda looked with admiration at the Kingís Knight. "Would that I could go out and stand alongside that gallant Knight," she thought to herself. "He is eager, as His Majesty has said. Such a Piece would make a fitting companion for a powerful Piece like myself, from whom I may launch my attacks."
Her right diagonal was blocked by Queenís Pawn Turner, who was still smarting from having hesitated in confusion in his previous game, in which he had first cometobe. Recalling King James mocking Sir Steven for his conventional play, and knowing Brenda desired a clear field, he waited until Lady Diana, the black Queenís Knight, had moved to Korovís service, then stepped smartly forward two squares to engage Korov in his right kill zone.
There was muttering in the ranks on both sides. "Silence!" Vanessa demanded. Though no Piece on the Board was bound to obey her, all quickly fell silent. "Youíve an impulsive team," she said to her counterpart, White Queen Helena. "These infants should be easy prey."
"Carefully, My Queen," said King George.
"Yours to command, Your Majesty."
"As you will it, then."
Moving her tall Piece with careless dignity, Black Queen Vanessa stepped forward to stand diagonally behind Korov. "You need have no concern, My King. I have returned many such pablum Pawns and toy Knights to the Primeval Substance, and I shall take out many more before returning to the embrace of our holy Commander."
"Be not too presumptuous, Vanessa," said the black King quietly.
"Aye. You shall never be more familiar with Commander than you are now," said Sister Brenda from across the Board. "You have greater range of motion on the Board than other Pieces, but you are a stupid bitch nonetheless -- and your Weapon is not greater than mine." So saying, she moved quickly to Kingís Knight Five, engaging Vanessa in her left kill zone. As she passed Sir Steven, she cast him a salute. "I am Bishop Sister Brenda. Come, join with me in returning this pompous black to the Primeval."
Flattered, he turned to face her. "I am Knight Sir Steven, and I am pleased to be in a position to serve you."
The Bishop pranced back and forth in her square. "See, black wench," she called out to the Queen, "how my teammates respect me. Served by such a Knight I shall take you out."
Vanessa radiated a bored contempt. "Very touching. Your romantic attachment to that Knight is very touching -- but also very foolish. Where is the purpose? Take some time to think about it before I take you out."
"Take her out?" said Steven, making a show of the fact that he stood in service to the Bishop. "I would hate to lose my Sister Brenda, but I can think of few moves which would pleasure me more than loosing my Weapon into your ugly black crest."
"Romance...fantasy," said Vanessa. "Without purpose."
"The purpose will be obvious when I take you out," said Bishop Sister Brenda.
Steven again found himself pausing, perplexed, to consider the game he lived to play. "She does have a point, Sister Brenda," he said. "Destroying her certainly explains the purpose of my service to you, but it would not explain a personal relationship."
"Thatís ridiculous, Sir Steven," she replied brusquely. "If it contributes to the victory of our team, it is well explained."
"But is it not something apart from Chess?" he persisted.
"There is nothing apart from Chess," she said flatly. "If there were, some questions would have no answers. You donít have any of those, do you?"
"No," he said, "but sometimes I feel like Iím missing an answer, and Iím not sure what to ask. Itís...itís like the questions donít explain the purpose of the game itself."
"What, are you joking? The purpose of Chessman life is to preserve and protect the King, for the Greater Glory...."
"....of King and Commander. Yes, I know all that, but..."
"....but what? Look around you, Knight, this is reality."
"That still doesnít tell me where all this is taking place."
Brenda shook her crest back and forth. "Have you gone mad? There is the Void, and this is the Board. You are in Kingís Bishop Three, thatís where you are."
"And the Board? Where is the Board?"
"Why, it is right here, and all else is the Void. Sir Steven, I begin to think I have made a big mistake. I sure hope you have no question about why you are a Knight."
"No," he said, "I know why I am a Knight. But I am not so sure why I am a Chessman."
"What is going on over there?" called King James the Profound. "Have you forgotten your oath so quickly, Knight?"
"No, Your Majesty," Steven said quickly.
"Then why are you a Chessman?"
"To serve King and Commander, Your Majesty."
"Exactly so. Now try to pay attention to the game. It will keep you alive longer than your pathetic attempts to explain the unfathomable motivations of Commander."
"Yes, Your Majesty." The Knight turned and watched as Queen Vanessa delicately stepped one square to her left.
"Whom do you threaten now, smalltime?" the black Queen asked Bishop Sister Brenda.
"You think you can scare me?" Brenda retorted. "Surely even you can see I am still served by the Knight."
"So you are," agreed Vanessa sweetly, "and by no other. That does keep him rooted to the spot, doesnít it? Or perhaps he is not so romantically attached to you after all, and would prefer not to sit idle because of your folly."
"Of course he is rooted to the spot. That is exactly where he is supposed to be...serving me!"
"Just so, noble Bishop," said Vanessa. She laughed and turned her attention from Brenda to the rest of the game.
"Your move was ill-advised, Bishop Sister Brenda," said King James. "Your foolish desire to ally yourself personally to the Knight has endangered the lives of your teammates Zambelli and Turner, as well as the safety of my own Royal Piece."
"I live to serve Your Majesty," she said humbly.
Sir Michael, the white Queenís Knight, moved to his right front square of motion, serving the threatened Pawn Zambelli. Immediately, Black Knight Lady Diana moved and lashed out with her Weapon, taking out Turner and challenging Sir Steven in her left kill zone. Steven wanted desperately to be able to move to destroy the undefended Pawn Korov, but he knew that it would cost Brenda her life if he did so. Then he realized that with her next move, Lady Diana would likely take him out, placing his King in Check and leaving Brenda also to certain death before the Weapon of the infamous Vanessa. He stood in helplessness as Sir Michael turned to King James and shook his crest.
"Perhaps I can even the score, My Liege," Sir Michael said. "If I can gain tempo, I can fork their blackguard King and that phelgmatic Rook Derek." He stepped to Queen Five and waited for the black team to respond.
"Thatís fine, Sir Michael," said the King, and in Mindpool, Steven saw the action which would save Brenda and eventually place the two Queens in opposition, each in her own Bishop Three. He also saw that the action would cost both him and Lady Diana their lives. Saddened and a bit ashamed to be perishing in his first game as a Knight, he stood resigned to his fate.
"Give my regards to Commander, Knight Sir Steven," said the black Knight.
"Give them yourself, Knight Lady Diana," he answered, grudgingly granting his respect to her for addressing him by his honorable title. Then he saw the substance of her surface leap out at him, and under the impact of the blow, he screamed in mortal pain. He was aware for an instant of a sensation of scattering, as though all the elements of his identity were ripped from him one by one in the passing of an immeasurably short time. The pain and identity loss caused him great anguish, the last thing of which he was aware.
The Void glowed, a pale blue luminescence, illuminating the Board on which Kaskey stood chanting the Litany of Commencement. He could not recall ever having been there before, but he knew where he was, and why. "I am Kingís Pawn Kaskey," he said, and stepped forward two squares smartly.
Steve stepped off the monorail that led from the City to the Park and walked briskly to the entry Pavillion, whistling. He found an empty cubicle and punched a set of code numbers from a menu on the ASK...automatic service keypad...to select the size, style, and color of clothes he wanted. He took off the City jumpsuit he was wearing and dropped it into the retriever, then took from the dispenser a red satin tunic and bikini brief, fastened with a white sash. Then he traded his boots for sandals, and he entered the Park.
It was an area of perhaps two hundred acres, covered over with a translucent dome. Under the dome the climate was semi-tropical. Groves of carefully selected fruit trees bore year round, fountains and pools provided ever-ready swimming holes, and the grounds were landscaped to provide dozens of small secluded hollows with sleeping nooks, caves, and little cabins.
From the Pavillion, Steve took the path leading toward the dining hall in the center of the Park. It took him past one of the recreation areas, where several of his friends were playing on a trampoline.
"Steve! Hey, fella, come play with us." The tall honey-blonde girl waved to him from the top of her bounce.
"Hi, Romi. I just got back from the City. I need to eat."
"Iíll come with you." She executed a high floating barani, landed on the soft turf beside Steve, rolled to her feet, then skipped happily up to him. "Come on, letís go."
"Have you seen Mike?"
"No. I think heís at the City. Want to stop and play love a while on the way?"
Steve laughed and stroked her leg playfully. "After eating and sitting some. First things first."
"Ha! Have you got a warped sense of values!"
"Not a bit. I know better than to take you to bed without being well fed and well rested. You deserve better than an early burnout."
She laughed. "Youíve got that right. Romi likes to rock and roll."
"But Iíll keep you in mind every second till then," he promised her. Hand in hand, they walked along the winding paths that led to the canopied area in the center of the domed Park. It had no walls, but a free-form pattern of colored columns that supported a gaily-designed canopy which shaded the polished marble floor of the area. There were pedestrian pool tables where people played a game with mallets like croquet, shuffleboards, nets and other recreational equipment, and piles of cushions where clusters of men and women relaxed and played. In the center of the floor a wide spiral staircase led underground to the dining hall and to steam and exercise rooms, and to the theaters where the people who lived in the Park created a form of running drama, plays which were always going on, and into which the people could step, improvise a character role for a while, then step off-stage and back into their real world.
Steve and Romi took the staircase down and walked across the carpeted floor to find a table. They chose a low curved bench with cushions for reclining Roman-style and turned on the menuscreen. Waiting only long enough to verify the code numbers, Romi punched the ASK for a crab salad and a glass of orange juice, then sat back while Steve perused the almost endless catalog of fine foods. He looked at seafoods, salads, synthetics, and finally selected from memory a steak, oyster cocktail, and a guacamole salad. He punched the code numbers and sat back, then added a glass of papaya juice as an afterthought.
After a few minutes, a young woman wearing a white working jumpsuit skipped to their table pushing a small heated table. She placed their orders on the table, greeted them cheerfully, then returned through swinging doors to one of the service tunnels.
"Itís good to eat," said Steve as he dug into his steak.
"Not much I like better," agreed Romi. She giggled and leaned back against the cushions to thoroughly chew, taste, and enjoy the first bite.
They ate for the most part in silence, putting their time and attention completely into enjoying their excellent meals and appreciating each otherís pleasure. Steve scanned Romiís body casually, appreciating it from several viewpoints. She was beautifully proportioned, long-limbed and full-bodied; she was exercised to a lithe, high-breasted fitness, with the superb body control of a champion athlete; as a sexual figure she was lush, supple, magnificent. He noticed her smile knowingly and make subtle but unmistakeable gesture patterns to include him in her personal space and, pleased, he shifted his weight slightly to acknowledge her invitation.
Steve was shorter than she by an inch, with the smooth-muscled body of a swimmer. He wore platinum white hair to his shoulders, and the eyes with which he was feasting upon her were deep, intense green.
She looked away and raised the knee closest to him, leaving her legs uncrossed. ("I asked you and you put me off to eat. Itís up to you to reopen play," he interpreted.) When she was finished with her salad, and he was wiping the last of the gravy from his plate, he held out to her on his fork the last of the fat button mushrooms that had garnished his steak. She took it happily, and he leaned across the table and laughingly kissed the gravy from her lower lip.
"Mmmm," she purred, and held the kiss.
He put his hand behind her neck and whispered softly into her ear, "Strawberry shortcake?"
"Later," she said firmly. "Wipe your chin and letís make it."
"Buck Ace!" he agreed, laughing and punching the ASK for towels. They popped from the table dispenser, chilled and perfumed.
They returned up the staircase to the canopied floor. Night conditions had been set, and the Park was darkened, but in the top of the dome, an array of soft hanging lights began to flash on and off in slow intervals, bathing the Park with a warm flickering light. The Party was active as always -- people drinking from the soda fountain and juice bar, playing music together on the Jamstand, and dancing to the music on the polished floor. As Steve and Romi walked past, a tiny dark-haired girl stood and waved at them.
"Hi, Steve, have you come to Party?" she asked, letting her gaze scan him fully and letting her hand pass between him and Romi when she stepped up to squeeze him.
"Hi, Brenda," said Romi, not waiting for Steve to answer. "No, weíre looking for a nice place to play love a while. Want to come with us?"
Brenda looked at Steve, who smiled his agreement with Romiís invitation. "Would be nice," he said.
She frowned and shook her head, then quickly covered her reaction with a smile. "Iíd love to, but Iíve already got a thing going," she said airily, and turned to leave.
There was a pause, then Romi snickered, and called after her, "Come on, Brenda, everybody knows the truth. Youíve gone kinky on us...canít stand anything but one man alone."
Brenda stopped, stood for a second without turning around, then demanded, "So whatís wrong with that?"
"It doesnít matter," Steve said. "I can see you later, Brenda. Weíve got all the time in the world, you know."
She looked at him a long moment over her shoulder, then smiled again. "Sure. See you later."
Steve and Romi left the canopy and walked toward one of the landscaped wooded hollows. They walked close together, enjoying the feel of each otherís space, and the warm anticipation growing between them. Even so, something about Brendaís reaction nagged at him, and it was several minutes before he was able to put his attention fully back on Romi.
"What shall we look for, occupied or not?" she asked.
"Letís just see what happens."
"Sounds like fun."
They found an empty grotto with a goldfish pool and an old-fashioned canopied round waterbed. It was cozy, and the ASK was playing a soft flute chorale, accompanying itself with a subtly changing pattern in concealed colored lights. "Just right," she said. "Letís take it."
Shedding their clothes, they entered the little hollow dancing slowly to the music. In smooth rhythmic motions, they stretched and contracted the muscles of their bodies to their fullest tension and relaxed them, stretching against each other, feeling the life and strength in each otherís bodies. They danced to the bed, where they began to massage each other, using the long strokes and pressure-point techniques they had learned in their body service classes. They stroked and caressed each otherís skin to a warm flush, using fingers, tongue, lips and hair, caresses becoming more and more explicitly erotic, until both were happily satisfied. They lay back against the cushions of the bed, watching the lights and listening to the sounds of the Park. "This is a nice life," said Steve reflectively.
She looked at him curiously. "What a strange thing to say. Of course itís a nice life. Itís the only life there is. Look around you -- this is what is."
"Well, yes, I know," he conceded, "but...well, suppose there werenít any ASKís."
"Suppose we all had three heads."
He shook his head, bewildered. "Thatís not enough. Itís like...we have answers to all the questions, but...maybe there arenít enough questions."
"Everything seems perfectly ordered to me," she said. "Everybody has a name and weíre all accounted for, and everybody has a job. Itís complete."
"What about the Employers?"
"What about the Employers?
"Who are they?"
"Come on!" she laughed, punching him on the shoulder. "Youíve seen them, you know who they are -- you have a job like everybody else, donít you?"
"Yesbut, yesbut! Steve, maybe somebodyís job is being the Employers. How many people have you ever asked about their jobs?"
Steve frowned and sat up on the bed. "Now that you mention it, Romi, I donít think I have ever talked with anybody about their job."
"So whatís to talk about? Everybodyís got a job and who want to waste time sitting around talking about jobs in the Park? Save it for the City."
"Whatís your job? What do you do at the City?"
Exasperated, she threw a pillow at him. "Youíre in an ugly mood. All right, I run a panel."
"What does it do?"
"Aw, fer crying in the dark, Steve, how should I know? I just know how to run it. I report to the City when my callsign rings, I do my job, and when I get off I come back to the Park."
"Thatís all right with you?"
"Certainly. What difference would it make?"
"I canít argue with that."
She hopped off the bed and stepped to the shower cubicle which was concealed in the rock and shrubbery. "Youíre just like Brenda," she called out to him. "Youíve got too any fantasies interfering with your life."
"I suppose youíre right," he conceded. "Iíd sure like to know whatís going on here though."
"So why ask me, when you have the reality right under your nose. Look around you."
"Thatís what Iím doing," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the rush of the shower in the refresher tank.
"Whatís all the racket in here?" asked a disembodied voice. Steve turned to seek the owner and saw a shaggy Oriental head peering at him around the back of the bed.
"Come on in, Takeo. Hey, tell me, man, does all this seem in order to you? You donít ever find yourself asking what itís all about?"
"All what?" The compactly-muscled little man stepped into the hollow and punched an apple juice onto the ASK, which promply supplied him with a container.
"The Park, the City...us."
Takeo shook his head and spoke to Romi, who had stepped out of the refresher tank and returned to the center of the hollow to stand drying herself with a huge towel. "Is he like this much? What color is up, Steve? What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
"Who are we?" Steve countered.
Romi laughed. "I donít know about you, but I know exactly who I am, and Iím pretty sure this is Takeo. If you donít know who you are, thereís something very strange happening here."
Though anger was an almost unknown emotion in the Park, he was frustrated they were teasing him, and frustrated they could not see the thoughts which were troubling him, and he replied harshly, "Of course I know who I am that way. Iím Kas...I...Iím Steve." Suddenly confused, he sat down on the side of the bed and shook his head.
Romi looked questioningly at Takeo. ("Punch for Caretaker?" she asked him in silent gesture.) Takeo shook his head. The Caretaker sent around people in working jumpsuits who calmed people if they became angry or depressed, but people taken away by the Caretaker sometimes did not return, and Takeo was fond of Steve. He put his thumb to his mouth, and Romi punched for a Euphizz, a mildly euphoric drink.
Steve took the drink wordlessly, nodded in contrition, and drank it. A few minutes later he smiled, stepped to the refresher, and spoke to his companions over his shoulder. "I feel fine now. I think Iíll go walking...maybe find a nice place to swim," he said.
Romi nodded happily. "Great. See you later, then. Weíre going to Party." They waved and left around a clump of shrubs.
He stepped into the refresher, took a quick cool-rinse and needle-spray, then stepped out to pick up his tunic. Brenda was sitting on the bed, holding both her clothes and his in her hands.
"No words," she said. "Just come to me. Now."
He looked at her quizzically a moment, then joined her on the bed. She reached for him and clung to him in sudden intense passion. He was surprised at her urgency, but allowed himself to be caught up in it and quickly became aroused. In a few minutes they lay quietly together. "Youíre very strange, Brenda," he said softly.
"Because I donít like to mix love and calisthentics?"
"Because I want just you?"
He turned to look closely at her, perplexed. "What do you mean by that?" he asked.
"Just what I said. Do you think thatís wrong, to want to make love with just one man?"
He shrugged. "It does strike me a bit odd. Itís like only punching the ASK for pizza. Why would you want that?"
"Itís not the same," she insisted. "Itís different."
"You can say that again. Why donít you just take things the way they are?"
"Why donít you?"
He was stopped short by that one, and nodded slowly. "You were listening...like...in the bushes?" She nodded.
"Why didnít you just come on in?" he asked.
"Because I donít like that. I only wanted you."
"Hey, everybody likes to play love," he said.
"Iím not everybody!" she declared defiantly. "I ask questions too, Steve." She took his face in her hands. "We should be together. Sometimes Iím afraid people will call the Caretaker if I ask too many questions. They never seem to understand. I hoped maybe you would."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Just be with me. Weíll find one place, apart from all the others, and just stay there. It will be best for both of us."
His eyes opened wide. "You mean you want me to refuse to play love with any of the others? Brenda, thatís absurd!"
She flashed for an instant to the edge of anger, then her eyes filled with tears. "So itís absurd," she wailed, jumping from the bed. "Itís how I feel, canít anybody understand that? Oh, I though if anybody would understand, it would be you." Clutching her clothes in her hand, she ran from the grotto.
Steve lay back in the bed, confused, but relaxed by the euphoric and comfortably tired. He tried to put some of the pieces together in his mind, but nothing would match up. His friends were right -- there was an answer for everything, and so far as he could see the only result of his wondering about his life...or Brendaís worrying about hers...was that both of them had become unhappy with the very pleasant life in which they found themselves. He punched the ASK for darkness and went to sleep on the bed.
He rose early, went swimming, then wandered toward the dining hall to get breakfast. He spent an hour as a participating spectator in one of the improvisational plays taking place in the theater, then another hour on the ice-skating rink, then drank another Euphizz and sat watching his friends play until lunchtime. Shortly after lunch, the ASK chimed his callsign, and he got up and started toward the entry Pavillion.
He arrived there walking briskly, his mind preoccupied with introspection. Without having to put any attention on the task at all, he found an empty cubicle, disposed of his tunic and briefs, punched his working jumpsuit and boot codes, and dressed for his job.
He stood outside waiting for the next monorail car, listening to the wind whistling through the huge lighted tube in which the monorail ran from the Park to the City, a liesurely ten-minute ride. The car hissed to a stop before him and the sides popped open. He sat down in one of the form-fitting couches and adjusted the volume on the music-playing headset built into the seat. A steward in jumpsuit greeted him cheerfully and reminded him to fasten his lap belt and headstrap for safety. He tightened the belt around his waist, then fitted his head carefully into the headset and tightened the strap across his forehead.
Sure is great to ride the monorail," he thought. "Great to have such a fine job." As the car began to move at its gentle, liesurely pace down the tube, he closed his eyes and drifted into the music.